I hate cold mornings. I hate early starts on Saturdays. Today is a cold Saturday and I have to be on the 8am bus. I am not in a good mood.
Steeling myself I take a deep breath, exhale with a sigh that hangs visibly in the December air then heave myself from my warm bed. A lick of a lukewarm shower, a slap of make-up and a slurp of coffee later and I am on my way.
The weekend traffic has yet to hit the road making it easy to manoeuvre through the narrow, cluttered streets. The walk from my flat at one end of town to the bus terminal at the other takes only fifteen minutes.
At the terminal, I state my destination – ‘Jinju’ – and take my ticket. The bus is already waiting.
Winding through the country roads, I check my Christmas list. There are only a few weeks left before my visit to England, the first since I left over a year ago. I want to take back gifts that show the essence of Korea. It is not an easy task; gift shop offerings of ginseng, black garlic and dolls dressed in hanbok don’t really convey what I love about this country. Resigned to a tortuous and probably futile trip to the city, I shove the list into my handbag, slump further into my seat and stare out of the window.
Terraced fields of garlic roll by. Women squat along the roadside, selling heaps of cabbages and bags of ‘yuja’ for making ‘yuja cha’. More fields and hills and terraces and I’m beginning to mellow a little.
Stainless steel rails sprout up on the verge signalling the outskirts of Noryang village and I sit up in anticipation. Just a little further on, the red steel of Namhae Bridge rises into view. No matter how many times I see it, my heart always leaps, just like the first time.
It was October when I arrived in Korea. Stepping out from the stuffy airport into the warm sunshine I expected to feel a sense of adventure or trepidation, but all I felt was the dull numbness of a fourteen hour flight.
The information I had was minimal; I would be transported from the airport to my new workplace, a school, somewhere in South Korea. Strangers collected and deposited me by taxi from airport to hotel to bus terminal without revealing anything of the ultimate goal. I gave up any pretence at control over my destiny. At Nambu bus terminal in Seoul, my taxi driver handed me a bus ticket and pointed towards stop number two.
“Your bus will arrive at 2pm. Stay on until the end.” he told me as he dashed off to avoid a ticket for double parking, “the driver knows you will be on the bus” he added mysteriously.
I boarded the bus, taking the seat the driver indicated – the centre seat of the back row. With a clear view down the aisle I observed the rows of heads that rose over every seat, each of them sporting a range of black hair; curly, straight, shiny or greying. I was the only red-head, the only Westerner. I felt like some kind of inverse Rosa Parks – minus the animosity. My fellow passengers seemed curious or indifferent about me.
It was an hour before we reached the outskirts of Seoul, a few more before we pulled into a service station for a break. After five hours stops became more frequent and the bus slowly emptied. The dull motorway views gave way to rural scenes – mountains, fields, small towns and villages.
The roads became narrower, winding along tight curves revealing, every now and again, a glimpse of sea. I had no map and no clue where I was. Only four passengers remained on the bus.
Then, turning another bend, I saw it: a magnificent replica of the Golden Gate Bridge. Glistening red in the setting sun, it stretched across the sea to an island just a short distance from the mainland. Korean flags fluttered along its length, drawing the eye to the neon-lit village at its base.
‘I want to live across that bridge’ I said to myself, almost fearing to hope.
I had always loved bridges. I recalled happy moments; standing on Charles Bridge in Prague, Westminster Bridge in London, Augustusbrucke Bridge in Dresden, the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. I loved the symbolism of bridges; crossing them, burning them, water under them. They spoke of change and movement and new chapters.
The bus made a tight left turn then – we were on the bridge! Tears of excitement pricked my eyes and I wiped them away, my rational self telling myself that it was just exhaustion from the stress of the journey. But my irrational self knew already – I was home.
My heart is still fluttering as I cross over to the mainland. I am only going to the Jinju for a few hours shopping yet still I feel a reluctance to be led away from Namhae Island. I turn in my seat, look back at the bridge as it disappears around the corner and wonder – how long before I look for a different bridge to cross?